Starting poetry

[This is from a letter I wrote to one of my ninth-grade students last week in response to her questions about what novels to read. She’s quite bright and insightful, and after I gave her a list of novels (which I may share with you later), I started in on poetry. I apologized later in the letter for unloading the poetry stuff on her sua sponte, but I was on a roll.

How would one advise a willing reader to approach or re-approach poetry? Perhaps you have a suggestion or two.]

You also may be ready to experience poetry in a new way. You might try the Beat poets (the Beats were the precursors to the hippies), particularly Jack Kerouac. I think you may like Kenneth Patchen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson . . . maybe William Blake, Gary Soto. Look at Sylvia Plath again.

Here’s how I would deal with poetry. Go to a new or used bookstore’s poetry section and browse. Look mostly at small volumes. Don’t get a big anthology at first: they can be good reference books, but they have no soul. (Many of the smaller, themed anthologies have soul, though.) Don’t even get a poet’s “collected works.” Not yet. You want something you can carry around like a snake stuffed down a little kid’s pocket. Just the kid and the snake know about it for a while, though people may eventually get suspicious.

Get a volume the poet and a caring publisher thought would best complement some poems. Maybe it has only a few poems the poet thought would go nicely together. Look for paper and a font style that please you. Look for spacing of words and verses on the page that pleases you. Spend more than you planned to if you have to.

Which poet? Probably someone recommended to you or a poet you know from English classes. Find a poem you like in one of her books, then flip around to see if the other poems have any potential. If they do, consider buying the book.

Read poetry books differently than you’ve been trained to read novels. Don’t read a book of poetry cover to cover. Skip around and read what you like over and over. In fact, it’s better never to finish the book out of respect for the poems as well as your own heart. Maybe read a poem every day or two or three (maybe a poem new to you; maybe not), and wait for the day when one of them catches fire. Read that one out loud all kinds of ways: crazy, soft, with an accent – however. Screams, anger, laughter, and tears should not be discouraged.

Poetry, like drama, is often best read aloud. Speaking of drama, you might read certain Shakespeare characters for good fun. I used to love reading the lines of certain favorite Shakespeare characters to myself. (Hmm . . . I’m not sure why I stopped. Gotta check into that.) Lincoln’s staff found him reading Shakespeare out loud to himself many nights at the White House as the war raged on. I think reading Shakespeare out loud gave Lincoln a feel for great language and helped him write and deliver some of the best speeches ever given. I like Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, and I love King Lear. If you’re in a villainous mood, read Richard’s lines in Richard III.

Posted April 2007